How To Get The Most Out Of Your Home In 2022
Illustration by Mr Avinash Weerasekera
The year was 1980. The Post-It Note had just been released, the Sony Walkman was on everybody’s Christmas list, and the mobile telephone was a brick-shaped figment of Gordon Gecko’s warped imagination. Within this pre-internet environment, the bespectacled futurist Mr Alvin Toffler made a remarkably prescient declaration.
“The home will assume a startling new importance in civilisation,” Toffler said. “The rise of the prosumer, the spread of the electronic cottage, the invention of new organisational structures in business, the automation and de-massification of production, all point to the home’s re-emergence as a central unit in the society of tomorrow – a unit with enhanced rather than diminished economic, medical, educational and social functions.”
Fast forward through more than 40 years of intensive technological development, throw in a series of lockdowns caused by a global pandemic and the humble dwelling has indeed become the most important thing we have. It serves as an entertainment space, a guest house, a school, an office, an exercise studio, a sanctuary in which to decompress and, sometimes, even a sanatorium.
To fulfil all of these diverse needs, the home must now be more multifunctional. It must be able to bend and twist in time with the rhythm of our daily existence, cater to our many moods and activities and, inevitably, act as a site of identity and self-expression. As we head into a new year of home improvements, here are a few tips I’ve picked up as co-founder of estate agent The Modern House, for how you can help that to happen.
The architects of the 1920s and 1930s exploited the structural capabilities of concrete and steel to usher in a new era of open-plan living, as households became less reliant on servants and social hierarchies began to disappear, and people spent much of the 20th century knocking down as many walls as they could. However, the most effective spaces have always had a healthy dose of flexibility to go with all of that expansiveness. Flats on Modernist housing developments like the Barbican Estate in London, for example, with their sliding doors and room dividers, demonstrate the value of the “broken plan”.
Even within a studio apartment, a curtain, glazed partition or bookcase on castors can help the room to accommodate different requirements throughout the day. A simple step within an open-plan space is a powerful psychological device, keeping the tide of children’s toys at bay, for example, or acting as a symbolic shift from day to night as you step up to the sleeping area.
Find your focus
Somewhere along the line, wall-mounted televisions started to become the focus of our living spaces. But we need to get back to something more elemental. Although we no longer formally withdraw to our drawing rooms, there is still a logic to using the hearth as the centrepiece of an interior arrangement. According to designer Mr Terence Conran, making fires accounted for an estimated 10 hours a week of housework in the mid-1930s. Nowadays we have central heating, but a fireplace still holds a timeless appeal.
The kitchen table is also a fine focal point for a supportive and adaptable interior. During the day, it might be a perch for a laptop, and by night with a candle placed ceremoniously at its centre, it becomes a more formal backdrop for dining. People don’t tend to crave a separate dining space these days, instead choosing to gather their friends in an informal way, inviting them to be a part of the process and giving them some vegetables to peel.
Create your own space
In this age of psychological uncertainty, having a space of one’s own has become increasingly important. Amateur artists and dilettante designers will feel the mental benefit of a separate studio: somewhere they can coil clay or weave wool while listening to their favourite vinyl records. Others may prefer to tend to their saplings in the potting shed, with the Shipping Forecast as a soundtrack.
A supplementary space like this can be fashioned from a redundant outbuilding, converted from a garage, tacked on to the house as a lean-to or newly built in the garden. If access to your own space is a luxury you don’t have, in a shared flat for example, it might be useful to have something as straightforward as a favourite chair to hunker down in.
Balance light and shade
Now that many of us work from home for at least part of the week, with little need to venture outside, we must consider our much-neglected circadian rhythms. A simple but effective way to get more natural light during the day is to place a desk near a window. A report in California showed that children are more productive, and even achieve better exam results, when they are able to work in a sunny space.
We should also build in dark spaces for reading and thinking, acknowledging that the unfocused atmosphere of a dimly lit nook allows our daydreams to take hold. Without areas of contrast, our homes would be one-dimensional and monotonous. If you walk down a shadowy corridor, for example, when you arrive at a sun-soaked space it feels all the more bright and uplifting.
Too much blue light in the evenings prevents the mind from winding down, so we should be aiming for candlelit dinners and fireside chats rather than the floodlit energy of a sporting event. The biggest scourge of modern interiors is the endless runways of ceiling spotlights that you find in kitchens – you shouldn’t have to wear a visor when you’re chopping the onions. Recessed ceiling lights, task lights, wall sconces and plug-in lamps provide a gentler and more forgiving glow.
As a result of the pandemic, we now place a higher demand on our interior materials, which must not only look good and provide comfort but also be uncontaminated and non-toxic. Copper, for example, is something of a wonder material. In the 19th century, it was observed that copper-workers developed an immunity to cholera; more pertinently for modern use, the coronavirus can survive for days on a stainless-steel or glass surface, yet dies within hours of landing on copper. Natural materials such as marble and glazed tiles have a gentle sheen and are easy to keep clean, and clay is a hygroscopic alternative to conventional gypsum plaster.
In design, we talk about “clean lines”, referring to the aesthetic impact of rectilinear forms and clearly defined volumes, but the sanitary connotation of the term is worth dwelling on. Reductivist architectural elements like shadow gaps and flush cupboards collect less dust than heavily contoured skirtings, architraves and mouldings. Designers are increasingly being asked to specify push catches and foot-operated doors, which are less likely to transmit germs from one person to another.
The Victorians became interested in the health aspect of interior materials, developing wipe-clean wallpaper, and the Modernists then developed things to a hospital level of cleanliness. The first thing that greets the visitor to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, for example, is a handbasin in the entrance hall. Nowadays, the boot room has assumed greater importance than ever before, and even the smallest urban flats prioritise shoe storage, proper doormats and guest washing facilities.
Bring the outdoors indoors
On average, we spend approximately 90 per cent of our lives indoors, so the home has to work increasingly hard to provide a connection to nature. Indoor plants positively impact our wellbeing, lowering blood pressure and increasing attentiveness, and they can also serve a practical purpose, helping to demarcate space, provide screening, absorb sound or add a flourish to an unremarkable room. The simple act of placing a bunch of peonies or sweet peas on the kitchen table makes us feel settled. Most fruits start their development as flowers, so our brains have been preconditioned by evolution to find them attractive, because they tell us that a food source is nearby.
One of the principles of biophilia is that rounded forms make us feel calmer than jagged ones, which stimulate the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear. As a result, furniture with rounded edges is becoming increasingly prevalent, like the “Roly-Poly” chair designed by my wife, Ms Faye Toogood.
Paint colours reminiscent of those found in nature are also becoming more popular, especially earthy red and ochre.
In much the same way that men’s fashion went through a “peacock revolution” in the 1960s, the post-pandemic interior will be a place of increased exuberance and individuality. Patterned wallpapers, colourful curtains and millefeuilles of rugs are the order of the day. Now that we spend more time at home than ever before, we have recognised the need to create a space that is the true expression of our inner selves.
When choosing what to buy for the home, we should follow our instincts rather than any preconceived notions about what constitutes good taste, and assemble a magpie’s collection of furniture and objects from different eras that reflect our own personal view of the world. Only by freeing ourselves from prevailing aesthetic trends and Instagram feeds can we start to see objects for what they really are.
Many of the best things have not been designed by well-known creators, cannot be found in textbooks and do not cost a great deal; often they have an accidental beauty that is the result of fulfilling utilitarian needs. With art, rather than second-guessing the vagaries of the market and investing for monetary gain, we should instead think about how a piece makes us feel.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we must surround ourselves with the objects that have the greatest emotional resonance and personal meaning: family heirlooms, souvenirs picked up on our travels and gifts from those we love the most.